Handcuffs, handguns, a pickup truck, abandoned rowhouses and a lot of determined-looking men and women striding purposefully down city streets — these are some of the images now playing day and night on Baltimore TV screens.
And they are not from a new network crime drama. They are dominant images in ads for candidates hoping to be the next mayor of Baltimore.
Led by businessman David Warnock, who has paid more than $1.3 million on media, the amount of TV spending by the candidates is in itself newsworthy. As a recent poll done for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore suggests, ad buys on TV have translated to higher standing in the polls.
With the six leading candidates in the Democratic primary now airing ads, it's time for a report card. Theses grades are not about truth or lies in advertising. The Sun's political reporters are doing the fact-checking on that.
The grades here are based on the skillful — or not so skillful — use of TV to sell a candidate. Do the ads establish or enhance an identity? Do they generate an emotional response? Do they make you like the candidate more — or make you want to switch the channel? Are they on enough Baltimore TV channels to have an impact on a significant number of voters? And, by the way, what are they saying about the city?
Sheila Dixon, B+.
The former mayor has only one ad so far, but it is playing on all the major Baltimore stations. Dixon did not put it on TV until after the Sun/UB poll showed her in a statistical tie with state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who had expanded her TV ad campaign and then started to surge.
A striking aspect of Dixon's ad is the absence of abandoned rowhouses, which figure prominently in ads for Warnock, Pugh and City Councilman Nick Mosby.
In several ads, the rowhouses, which have come to symbolize Baltimore globally on TV series like "The Wire," are used to drive a 30-second narrative intended to take the viewer from a gloomy, grimy, dying city to one of hope, promise and new small businesses. The catalyst, of course, in the mini-journey of transformation is the candidate.
That's what almost all TV ads do: Promise transformation and try to sell us various agents that can allegedly deliver it.
But Dixon's ad, titled "Talents," skips the gloom and goes straight to the upbeat part with testimonials to the candidate from six small-business owners and community members. The spot makes quick stops at places like Sofi's Crepes and the Station North Arts Cafe Gallery.
When rowhouses do appear at the end, they are good-looking, populated ones. And they are used as a backdrop for Dixon, who is center stage, confidently marching down the street campaigning for votes.
Catherine Pugh, B+.
There is much to like in Pugh's three TV ads. The pacing of the first two generates a sense of energy and forward movement, in sync with her theme of "Moving Baltimore Forward."
The first two ads also have a young and fresh feel, which is a bonus for a veteran politician. Some of that feel comes from the bounce and drive of the music in the first ad. But much of it is also driven by the dynamic street-scene photography and Pugh's own on-screen presence. Of all the candidates, she comes across as most at home on-screen.
That ease is showcased in a gesture she makes in the second ad. Standing in front of abandoned rowhouse (yes, more abandoned rowhouses), she says, "Baltimore should be a dynamic, thriving city."
Then, as she jerks a thumb over her shoulder toward the rowhouses, she adds, "not this," with a shake of her head.
The ad pivots on that dismissive gesture, and Pugh nails it.
Pugh's most effective ad of all might be her most recent one, which features a victim of domestic violence testifying to the help Pugh provided in launching her on a path away from an abusive situation to a successful career as a "senior manager" at a Baltimore hospital. It's 30 seconds of quiet power and strong emotion.
The visual to which Warnock has wedded his personal image in TV ads is a pickup truck.
"Thirty-three years ago," he says in his first ad, as viewers see him driving through the city, "I drove into Baltimore in this old truck. In the front, a dream of a better life. In the back, a load of student loan debt I never thought I'd be able to pay."
Warnock says he "worked hard" and "built a business."
"And now I'm running for mayor," he continues, "because this city needs a leader — not a politician — one who's created real jobs and opportunities. That's how we're going to turn Baltimore around."
But, as I wrote when the ad first appeared, I don't know about the truck. Pickup trucks have a lot of cultural baggage and different meanings to different people, depending on their histories.
Still, the ads have gotten this businessman noticed by potential voters as evidenced by his third-place standing in the Sun/UB poll.
Warnock has four ads that have been playing on cable and broadcast TV in Baltimore. To some extent, they follow the formula of a highly successful American Express ad titled "Small Business Owners Anthem" that debuted in 2009 in the wake of the nation's near-economic collapse. That narrative: Things are bad, but entrepreneurs are shining a light and forging a path to better days and new jobs.
Nick Mosby, C+.
Mosby has two TV ads, playing only on Comcast cable channels in the city — not local stations — limiting their reach.
His first ad, which featured pop-up images of him from his past, was awful. I gave it a D. But his second ad is a winner. I give it an A-.
Titled "They Failed Us," it is also the first I've seen in any campaign to go negative, attacking his more experienced rivals — Dixon, Pugh and City Councilman Carl Stokes — by name as do-nothing city officials who reneged on the promises that got them elected.
It opens with a family of four standing in front of abandoned rowhouses. (Yes, the rowhouses again.)
"Have you seen our neighborhood?" the father asks.
"Have you seen our schools?" a little boy says plaintively.
Cut to an older couple sitting on a couch inside their house.
"I remember when Dixon and Stokes first got on City Council in the '80s," the man says.
"And Pugh got there in the '90s," the woman adds.
'We're still waiting for the change they promised," the man says sadly as the woman shakes her head.
"How can we move in a new direction with the same old ideas?" Mosby says standing in front of city hall. "They failed you and they failed me, too."
A bell sounds, music rises and Mosby says, "I'm Nick Mosby, and I've had enough. It's time for new ideas and new results." A montage of images showing Mosby on the march through the city shaking hands and hugging constituents follows.
It's simple, fast and hard-hitting — everything the first ad wasn't.
Elizabeth Embry, C
I liked the energy of Embry's first ad, "Focused Future." It smoothly gave us a lot of resume information to feed its narrative: "Elizabeth Embry has the strongest record of cutting crime."
Its use of a screen split four ways might seem a bit busy in an old-fashioned, cable-news kind of way. But the producers handled them skillfully with images of Embry on the move in three and the information they wanted viewers to focus on about her career in the fourth.
And the color palette was appealing, with lots of blues and reds and none of the gray so prevalent in others' ads.
Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that ran the Sun-University of Baltimore poll, pointed to the ad in explaining what he called Embry's "strong second-tier position" in the survey where she placed fifth.
The problem is she has had nothing since, and there is no ad running now even as some of her rivals ramp up.
Embry needs more airtime and a fresh, more aggressive ad that moves beyond the biography of the first to fill it with.
Stokes went for a loud, tabloid look and feel holding a handgun and handcuffs and sounding angry with an I-told-you-so message about Baltimore having too much incarceration and not providing enough education.
There's an anger in this city, no doubt about it. But in this ad it felt like Stokes was angrily lecturing viewers for not embracing his message 20 years ago on jails and schools instead of channeling what citizens are feeling today.
This kind of ad might work for a certain kind of attorney trying to find clients watching late-night TV, but not a mayoral candidate looking for votes in an election as important as this.